Australia's sprint specialist Caleb Ewan has put early disappointments to one side to claim his first stage on the Tour de France. Mark Cavendish may be absent this year, but his aerodynamic sprint style's still on show.
Sprinting to the finish of Stage 11 in Toulouse, Caleb Ewan's rear wheel darts back and forth, looking on the brink of losing traction altogether. Ewan's leaning so far forward over his handlebars that his center of gravity is moving perilously towards the front. The Australian is often on the limit when sprinting, looking for the most aerodynamically efficient position in the saddle — this can make a difference at speeds of around 70 km/h (43.5 mph) reached by sprinters on flat finishes like the one in Toulouse.
Ewan flings his bike wildly from side to side, trying to reel in runaway Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen. Both furiously propel their bikes across the line and the minuscule margin of perhaps 5 centimeters decides this 209.5-kilometer stage: Caleb Ewan's front wheel crosses the line first and the 25-year-old punches the sky with glee.
"Yeeeeaaaaah!" he cries to his crew at the finish line moments later, as he brings his bike to a stop. It's his first ever Tour de France stage win; tears of joy glisten in his eyes.
"Since childhood there is no other race I've dreamed of winning. Watching in Australia, the Tour seems so far away — I can't believe I'm even here but to win a stage is a dream come true," Ewan said after the stage.
Inspired by windtunnel data, sprinters like Ewan (front left in photo) are adopting ever lower poses in the saddle to improve aerodynamic efficiency
Tipped to shine
Before the Tour began many observers considered Ewan a candidate for stage wins on the flat runs, even one of the favorites to take the yellow jersey at the outset in Brussels. Briefing Australian journalists beforehand he was optimistic, saying he was in good form, his legs were feeling good and his self-confidence was high.
But the Tour kicked off with disappointments for Ewan: surprise package Mike Teunissen took the Brussels sprint, as Ewan ran out of puff in the closing phases and rolled in third. He achieved more third places in stages 4 and 10, also logging second place on the seventh stage. But close doesn't count among the sprinting community, only the stage win matters.
"I've been close in the last four sprints that I've done," Ewan said on Wednesday. "My team never lost faith in me. I never lost faith in my sprint. I knew that if everything came together I could be the fastest on the day, and I think I showed that today."
Ewan had long demonstrated his credentials: three Giro d'Italia stage wins, one on the Vuelta a Espana, a win at the Hamburg Cyclassics and second place on the Milan-Sanremo are just some of the boxes he has ticked. A Tour stage was the gap on his CV, not least because his previous team, Mitchelton-Scott, didn't select him for the Tour. That's surely one reason why Ewan left the Australian team to join the Belgian Lotto-Soudal squad, where he replaced an aging Andre Greipel of Germany. Here, he received the requisite trust and the sprint support needed to very often put him in the perfect position for a final assault on the finish line.
The next 'aerosprinter'
What comes next is a ride on a razor's edge. Ewan's sprinting style is extreme and involves his entire body. Standing just 1.65 meters tall (5 foot, 5 inches), the "Pocket Rocket" is considerably smaller than much of the competition. But this can be an advantage too — primarily because he offers such a small surface area for the headwind. A combination of his small body and his exceedingly low, ducked pose on the bike allow him to hit incredible top speeds on flat ground.
The idea for Ewan's pose germinated in the wind tunnel, and he's spoken in the past about how hard it was to adapt to ride that way in decisive moments, as a rider's instinct when looking for more power is to adopt an upright position to put their body weight onto the pedals.
That said, this isn't a style to try on the roads yourself. Ewan has spoken about how it can be "ridiculous" and "scary," effectively staring at the road under his wheels rather than the road ahead.
Ewan also borrowed the idea from a hero of his, Mark Cavendish. He was the first man to be dubbed an "aerosprinter," but Ewan has taken the position a step further than the 30-time Tour stage winner who's missing from this year's event, because he wasn't selected by his team. Riding this way requires less power to maintain the same speeds, but there's a cherry on top of the cake: a sprinter low down in the saddle like Cavendish or Ewan also provides far less of a slipstream for any riders trying to chase them.
Hailing from Sydney, with a Korean mother and Australian father, Ewan started young. Inspired by his father, also a professional cyclist, he competed in his first race aged 8. His first successes came on the track, where he became junior world champion in 2011. The next year he was runner-up in the junior world championships of road racing, and he turned pro at the astonishingly young age of 19. He's since earned himself 36 career victories among the cream of the world's sprinting crop.
Now though, as the Tour climbs out of sprinters' territory and into the Pyrenees mountains, Ewan faces a new battle — keeping up with the time limit so that he can complete the full race. He will go into this fight with another personal dream in mind; winning a stage on the Champs-Elysees in Paris at the Tour's finale.